Vanessa Marano is one of the most dynamic up-and-coming actor working today. Her exceptional talent as an actor have led to her being a multiple time nominee for a Teen Choice Award for her portrayal of Bay Kennish, the artistic and edgy daughter in the ABC Family Television Critics Award winning show, “Switched at Birth”. The series boasts an impressive cast and revolves around two teenagers (played by Vanessa Marano and Katie Leclerc) who were switched at birth and grew up in very different environments. The series continues to be a huge success and has gone on to win multiple awards including the Peabody Award in 2012. A favorite with critics and fans alike, the award winning series recently returned for it’s third season in January 2014. Marano’s talents aren’t limited to the small screen as she is poised to make a huge splash with her upcoming film, “Senior Project,” which is set for release in 2014. Directed by Nadine Truong with a script from Jeremy Lin, the film follows five teens with absolutely nothing in common who, in order to graduate, must rush to complete their year-long senior project in a single, crazy weekend. Even with her career on a sky-rocketing trajectory, Vanessa Marano also manages to lend her time and support to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation which promotes the health and well-being of people living with a spinal cord injury, mobility impairment, and paralysis. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Vanessa Marano to discuss her blossoming career, her evolution as an actor, being a part of the eclectic cast of “Switched at Birth,” her upcoming role in “Senior Project,” her charity work and much more!
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get your start on your journey into the entertainment industry?
I wanted to act when I was about six years old. My mother was a drama teacher at high school and she opened up a children’s theater after that, so I really grew up around it. I wanted to do it professionally but I was six and what six years old knows what she wants to do professionally? [laughs] Most of them just want to be princesses when they grow up! [laughs] My Mom was like “No! Absolutely not! It is a terrible industry and I don’t want to drive you around and I don’t like stage-moms! You should just be a kid! Why would you want to be a professional actor?” That just translated into “Try harder, Vanessa!” [laughs] I kept asking her for two years straight. Finally, when I was about eight years old, she had workshops with agents around town and found out there was a particular agent who was known for turning children down for no good reason. She thought, “Excellent! She’ll turn her down and I will say “We tried! What can you do?” She took me and my little sister, who wasn’t even auditioning for her, and ultimately, my mother ended up having to drive around two little girls for ten years of her life! [laughs]
It seems to be working out really well for you so far, so that’s a plus!
Yeah! She is OK with it now! [laughs] She has finally come to terms with it! [laughs]
As a young actor, who do you cite as some of your biggest influences?
I am obsessed with Helen Mirren! I find her career fantastic! I think it is so great she has done ever medium known to man and has found success in the different areas of her life. I think she is brilliant. As far as people I have worked, I have been truly lucky to have worked with a ton of fantastic actors who have provided me with a lot of inspiration. I have worked with Lucy Liu and Anthony Lapaglia. On “Switched at Birth,” the show I am on right now, I have been blessed to work with D.W. Moffat, Marlee Matlin, Lea Thompson and Constance Marie. They have all been so fantastic and lovely to work with and I truly appreciate them and admire the careers they have had and continue to have.
For those who may not be familiar with ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth,” what can you tell us about the character you play and what intrigued you initially and made you eager pursue it?
“Switched at Birth” is about two girls who were switched at birth and one of them happens to be deaf. I think that is the most interesting part of our show actually. It is a show about identities. It is a show about nature versus nurture and what makes a family. Is it the blood that you share or the love you have? It is a story I think we can all relate to. It has been told before but it has never been told in this way with the use of American Sign Language as well as featuring multiple deaf performers playing deaf characters. It is something unique and is something that continues to draw me to the show. I have never had an opportunity where I’ve been able to go to work and learn a new language and on “Switched,” that is the opportunity that has been provided for me!
What do you feel you might have brought to this character that wasn’t in the initial script?
It is one of the things whenever you do a pilot where you and the writer don’t know where the character is going to go yet because you haven’t had the time to work with each other. We only had about a week, really. I think the thing that ended up becoming a big part of Bay that took me for surprise, as well as our writer, but we both loved it and went with it is that the character became so much more humorous than she was originally intended to be. There as definitely a lot of humor put in on my part and then the writers really embraced it and wanted to continue it along. Bay is surprisingly funny character. She is a dramatic character and a very typical character at times too. A lot of times, when I am reading the script, I say “What are you doing Bay? That is a terrible, terrible decision!” She sticks by her decisions, sticks by who she is and is OK with who she is but is also willing to be honest about her faults. Because of that, I think of all the characters on the show, she has grown the most. You may not start out liking that character but by the end of it but by the end of it you end up loving that character! I think that has a lot to do with the vision our writers had for her. Thankfully, for me, I was able to be a part of that vision and help elevate it to the place it is at right now.
You mentioned the terrific cast on the show. What have you been able to pick up from working alongside some of these amazingly talented actors?
We just laugh together all day long! I think it is really nice, especially when you are doing a drama, to laugh all day long. I think that is something that all these actors have on the show; they take their work very seriously but they don’t take themselves too seriously. That is a really awesome work environment to be in!
What do you consider the biggest challenge you have faced on this project?
I think what has been the biggest challenge for me on this project is the use of sign language on the show. I didn’t know any sign language before the show and now half of my scenes in an episode are in ASL. That has definitely been a challenge! It was a challenge in the sense I had to learn another language and I have had to meet with an ASL instructor every weekend to learn my lines and to make sure we are doing it correctly. It is a big part of the show and it is one of my favorite parts of the show because it is so different!
You touched on how Bay has grown in the first few season of the series. Where do you hope to see her expand in the future?
She is somebody who takes two steps forward and one step back, so I hope to see her continue to take two steps forward!
Speaking of taking two steps forward, you have a film project on the way! What can you tell us about ‘Senior Project?’ How did you get involved initially and what can you tell us about this film?
‘Senior Project’ is about a group of kids, who you wouldn’t necessarily put together, working on the final project of the year together. It is very much we are an unlikely group of characters who have to get along with each other. It really highlights what everybody goes through in their senior year of high school where they are questioning who they are and what they are going to end up doing with their life. What really drew me to doing the project was the opportunity to work with a really good friend of mine named Meaghan Martin. We are really good friends and I really loved the idea of being able to do something with her, so that was a big drawing point for me!
Your director on ‘Senior Project’ was Nadine Truong. What do you feel she brought to the project and what did you learn from your time together?
Nadine brought so much to this project. She was really the final decision making factor for me on doing the project. Once I met her, I really feel in love with her vision and her working process. She has such an amazing energy and an amazing philosophy on filmmaking. Her process is very calm and thought out, which is nice. She is a big reason why it was such a smooth shooting schedule. On a project like this, you need to have a decisive leader and she definitely was one.
What was the biggest challenge on a project of this scale?
It was an independent film, so that brings its own set of challenges! [laughs] You are shooting it in three weeks, which is not a lot of time to be shooting anything at all! You don’t have a lot of the financial means or time to shoot that a lot of larger films do. It is guerrilla filmmaking! There is something so collaborative about independent films that you do get to see with a lot of the big studio films. You don’t have a lot of money and you are low on time you have to get very creative and be very creative as a group to capture what it is you need to capture and make the film worth watching.
Do you have a particular process for bringing your characters to life, whether it is on the television or the silver screen?
I think it is all in knowing the scripts backwards and forwards. It is all about understanding the arch of your character and tracking where you character is going to go on this journey through in a two hour film or an hour episode. Once you have that figured out, it is just making it work on the day. I think people get caught up a lot in the romantic side of acting where it is “feeling this” and “understanding that” and really knowing all these little aspects of your character that the audience may not know but I think we often forget how many technical aspects go into it. You can know you character backwards and forwards and know the script backwards and forwards and understand what you are supposed to be doing at the moment but you have to, on the day, hit your mark, do it, see the camera, make sure you are being loud enough for sound. That is the only way those feelings and that story will be captured; through the technical aspects of it. There is a line where you have to embrace that as well as the actual emotion behind the part.
What do you find yourself looking for in characters these days and is there a particular type of character or genre you are anxious to tackle in the short term?
I am just a workhorse! I just want to work! I would work in film, television, theater or anything as long as it is a worthwhile project. I hope too! I have been very lucky in my career that I have been able to keep working consistently and I hope to continue that trend!
Looking back at your career so far, how do you feel you have evolved as an actor through the years?
I think you are always evolving as an actor. I started as a child and now I am an adult so there is so much evolving you do there as a person that it definitely affected the way I approach work and my acting style in general. I think you are constantly improving as an actor and I think that goes hand in hand with the change you experience as a person in throughout your life. Ever year you change and you hope you change for the better.
Do you have any plans or aspirations to pursue a career behind the camera?
I am very interested in being involved behind the camera. I would love to eventually get involved in producing. Whether that route is through writing or directing, I know I know I would definitely want that to be part of my career. I have grown to have such an appreciation for the people behind the camera. It is unfortunate that a lot of times as a viewer and a fan you can’t see those people because they really do make the project what it is. In addition to the actors, there is a soundman, an assistant director, a wardrobe/hair/makeup girl, a director of photography, a camera operator, a producer, a writer and director all working together to make something be as fantastic as they can make it. That is something I love about this industry, the collaboration between all of these people!
What projects are you involved with outside of the world of acting are you passionate about?
I am ambassador for The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. That is something very near and dear to my heart. This season on “Switched at Birth” we have been featuring a character, played by R.J. Mitte., who is in a wheelchair and is dealing with having a spinal cord injury and his legs being paralyzed. That is what The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation is about — finding a cure for spinal cord injuries and paralysis as well as improving the lives of people in wheelchairs. It is a foundation I have been involved with for quite awhile. It is something so near and dear to my heart because we are so very close to finding a cure. We are so close and have made such strides in the past ten years to get to where we are now. I think it is something very important that everybody pays attention and supports this cause because you life could change in just one day. You could be walking down the street and be hit by car and be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation is making it so you don’t have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Hopefully the cure will be found soon.
It is definitely a terrific cause to be a part of and they have been doing some amazing work. For those who may not know, how did you get involved with The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation?
I worked with Christopher Reeve on what was his final film. The film was based on the true story of an amazing woman named Brooke Ellison, who became a quadriplegic at age eleven. I had been aware of the foundation and involved since I was eleven years old. When I turned eighteen I started to get even more involved. Thankfully, I have the platform of “Switched” where we can help raise awareness with the people who are watching. I love that the wrote in a character with a wheelchair because it makes it that much more easy and special to talk about something that is near to my heart when it is being featured on the television show I am on. It is really awesome that we have a character on the show that is raising awareness for people who are suffering from spinal cord injuries in real life.
When you are hard at work on the series, a film or raising awareness, what do you like to do to pass the time?
Well, I like to sleep as much as humanly possible! I am a big fan of that! [laughs] I don’t do anything to out of the ordinary. I enjoy spending time with friends and watching television. When I am not working, I try to go to school. I mean, why not?! You can either sit around all day waiting to get an audition for a job or you could be productive. I usually try to take a class whenever I can!
You can serve as a great inspiration to so many people. What do you consider the best lesson that could be taken from your life and times so far?
I still have so much more to learn in my life and times as well but I think the best thing to remember is that you are you. Just be you and surround yourself with people who will better you. That is all you can hope for — to love and understand yourself while striving to be the best version of yourself and allowing yourself to be around people who influence you doing that.
Thank you so much for your time today, Vanessa! We are big fans of your work and look forward to seeing what you have in store for us in the years to come!
Thank you so much, Jason! Talk to you soon!